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Ancient Tonics


Climbers are subject to a number of stressors ranging from physical fatigue to the mental stress of dealing with exposure. We climb in all sorts of weather. We often don't recover adequately. It's not surprising that sometimes our health's delicate balance tips, and injury or sickness results. One way to help maintain that dynamic equilibrium is by pro-actively tonifying the body with herbs. For example, if you're beginning a training program or leaving for a trip or expedition, you might want to start taking an adaptogen like eleuthero, an herb that has been shown in some studies to help with symptoms like fatigue, stress, sore muscles and exhaustion.

Adaptogens, including some ancient rasayanas and qi tonics, are herbs and fungi that help the body achieve allostatic balance. These substances have been widely used for thousands of years and are still prescribed in Ayurvedic (Indian) Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Adaptogens may increase the body's resistance to physical, chemical and biological stress and build energy and general vitality. According to Shen Nong's Herbal, a 2,000-year-old Chinese classic, they constitute the superior herbs, effective for multiple diseases, mostly responsible for maintaining and restoring balance, almost no unfavorable side effects. Western double-blind studies on rats have indicated that adaptogens stimulate the immune system and increase vital energy, motivation and sex drive. Traditional doctors and herbalists have long maintained that adaptogens have a normalizing effect, capable of dampening hyperfunctioning systems and stoking hypofunctioning systems. The claim seems borne out by the demonstrated action on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the body's reaction to stress, and regulates digestion, immunity, mood and emotions, sex drive, energy storage and expenditure. Unlike some herbal tonics, coffee, yerba mate and ephedra, for example, these medicines are non-addictive, with almost no toxicity.

See your local naturopath, herbalist, TCM or Ayurvedic doctor to find out more about adaptogens, and to find out what dosage and/or combination is right for you.



Lingzi (or Reishi) Mushroom

This mushroom grows in almost every region of the world, from temperate zones to the Amazon, at the base of deciduous trees, and is cultivated on logs and woodchip piles. Lingzi means herb of spiritual potency. The 16th century Bencao Gangmu, a Chinese medical text, describes the effects: Taken over a long period of time agility of the body will not cease, and the years are lengthened. This mushroom has been shown to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties, killing both influenza and candida albicans, for example. More broadly, Lingzi has a molecular structure similar to steroid hormones.



The name means horse's smell in Sanskrit, a reference to the sweaty horse aroma of the root. In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is purported to have aphrodisiac, sedative and rejuvenative effects, and is traditionally used to treat chronic fatigue, dehydration, bone weakness, muscle weakness and tension, nervous exhaustion, loose teeth, constipation and senility. Ashwagandha has been dubbed Indian ginseng because it is used in a similar manner to Asian ginseng, but the plants are from distinctly different families. Few clinical studies have been done, but those that have been completed suggest that the root is effective in reducing anxiety and arthritis pain.


Cordyceps sinensis

This caterpillar fungus is a weird result of a parasitic relationship between the ghost moth larva and a fungus. Once infected, the fungus sends mycelium through the caterpillar's body and a brown mushroom shoots up through the head. Cordyceps first gained international attention following the 1993 Chinese Track and Field National Championships when three female athletes broke world records in the 1,500-, 3,000- and 10,000-meter races. The athletes were widely suspected of using anabolic steroids, but tests administered after the event revealed no illegal substances. The coach did admit that the runners were taking cordyceps, however. In traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine cordyceps is used as an aphrodisiac and as treatment for fatigue as well as for a variety of ailments.



This distant relative of ginseng is a small woody shrub native to Northeastern Asia and has been used in TCM and Russian folk medicine for thousands of years. It is said to increase endurance, improve memory, suppress inflammation and boost immunity. Soviet-era coaches gave this herb to Olympic athletes, and Russian, Korean, American and Australian clinical studies seem to have demonstrated that eleuthro can improve strength and endurance. To be effective, eleuthro needs to be taken regularly, but one study on baseball players seemed to show that respiratory function, and therefore endurance, was improved after the herb was taken for eight days.



Ginseng's botanical name, Panax, is Greek for all heal, and the herb has a long history of traditional use as an adaptogen, aphrodisiac and stimulant. It is prized as an overall revitalizer. Numerous studies appear to have confirmed ginseng's effectiveness in boosting immune function. In one recent study, for example, 323 people who had two or more colds the previous year were given ginseng or a placebo. The number of subjects with two or more colds during the four-month study was significantly lower in the ginseng group, as were the reported severity of symptoms and the total number of days symptoms were reported.

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